Why are the FA Doing a Youth Heading Trial?

We Make Footballers
03 December 2023

Why are the FA Doing a Youth Heading Trial?

Ahead of the 2022-23 football season, the FA announced it would be carrying out a youth heading trial whereby heading a ball would be banned in matches from Under 12s level and below.

County associations, leagues, competitions and schools were invited to take part in the trial, which has since been extended and adapted into a second year for the 2023-24 campaign. 

If the trial is successful, heading could be banned across the entire country in youth football from Under 12s and below at the start of the 2024-25 season.

Already aware of the dangers heading can pose to children aged 12 and under, We Make Footballers have a no deliberate heading policy across all of our football training academies. 

Safety considerations are obviously paramount, but removing heading also helps to support the development of players by improving their technical ability with the ball at their feet.

Looking at the wider football world beyond We Make Footballers, what does this trial mean when it comes to in-game heading? How successful has it been so far? And what might youth football look like beyond 2024 if the FA introduces a permanent ban on heading?


Why trial removing heading from youth football?

The possibility of a link between heading a ball and neurodegenerative disease has been a hot topic in football for several years, with many former professional players suffering from dementia and other complications.

A watershed moment arrived in 2002, when a coroner ruled that the death of former West Bromwich Albion and England striker Jeff Astle was the result of industrial disease owing to repeated heading of a football. 

Fast forward to 2019 and a study led by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart found professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the population.  

Another study in 2021 discovered that goalkeepers were at no greater risk than the general population. This further pointed to a correlation between heading a football and neurodegenerative diseases.

The FA first took steps to reduce the potential impact of heading a football on children in 2020. Coaches were advised against any practising of heading for those age 11 years old and under. From Under 12s to Under 16s, light heading could be gradually introduced.

Further guidance was issued to adult football covering both professional and grassroots levels at the beginning of the 2021-22 season, setting a recommended limit of 10 high-force headers per week in training.

There are reasons beyond the potential impact on the brain as to why the FA introduced the youth heading trial. Banning heading also mitigates the risk from head-to-head, elbow-to-head and head-on-ground collisions. 


Youth football without heading in the 2022-23 season

Before making changes to the laws of the game, the FA had to seek approval from the International Football Board (IFAB). After positive discussions, IFAB approved the youth heading trial for a two-year period.

60 leagues signed up for the trial during the 2022-23 season, encompassing more than 83,000 children across England.

Deliberately heading the ball became an offence punishable by an indirect free kick to the opposition. If the header took place in the penalty area, the indirect free kick was taken from the penalty spot.

The FA had initially hoped that data and feedback would allow them to present a strong case to IFAB for a permanent Under 12s and below heading ban for the start of the 2023-24 season.

However, it was decided to run the trial for another year before presenting to IFAB, with more participants increasing the breadth of research alongside a slight tweaking of the rules for the current campaign.


Continuing the youth heading trial in 2023-24

IFAB will only approve a permanent change in the laws of football if the new rules are shown to have a minimal impact on the game itself. 

Someone should perhaps remind them of that in relation to the introduction of VAR, but that is for another article at another time…

The FA concluded based upon their feedback from leagues and coaches that the restart rule in the box - whereby the indirect free kick was taken from the spot – was having too great an impact on the game.

Subsequently, the rules were changed. In 2023-24, any deliberate header in the penalty area is instead punished by an indirect free kick to the opposition from the nearest sideline of the penalty area where the offence took place.

A greater number of leagues and more children are playing under the no heading rules this season, giving the FA more data to analyse over whether a permanent heading ban is feasible.


Heading in youth football beyond 2024

The FA delaying asking for a ban on heading a ball in youth football by a year shows that they are determined to have enough evidence for IFAB to find in their favour. 

Any ban would apply to children’s football worldwide and so mark a major shift in the sport’s relationship with heading.

With most matches at Under 12s level and below played on small-sided pitches with smaller goals, the ball tends to spend far less time in the air. Heading is largely unnecessary and therefore the impact of a ban is negligible.  

It is much easier to introduce a heading ban in children’s football than for teenage and adult 11-a-side matches, not to mention bringing games in line with the current heading practice guidance for Under 12s and below. If young footballers are not heading the ball in training, how can they be expected to do it safely in matches?

With children’s brains still developing, it makes sense to take a cautious approach to protecting them as much as possible. Through their teenage and adult years, there will be hundreds of games of football to be played where heading is – currently – allowed. They only get one brain.

What will be interesting is whether a successful youth football heading trial leads to calls for similar pilot schemes to take place in teenage, grassroots or even professional football. 

The results of the FA’s youth heading trial are due to be revealed in the summer of 2024. It could represent a seismic moment in terms of the sport’s potential link with long-term brain diseases. Watch this space.